When I published “BJ Lifton booted” I knew it would be controversial , but I had no idea that it would turn into a sideshow. It’s been at various times fascinating, disheartening, and amusing to observe the Language Police, Special Victims Unit morph into an anonymous CLP purge team; a smear squad intent on naming anyone who disagrees with them, including yours truly, a crypto-adoptionist. Or something like that. Since I‘ve had leggies on a committee floor call me a “baby killer“ for opposing safe haven laws, I think I can handle the accusation.
Background: I did not break the story of BJ’s boot. Mirah Riben wrote about it first in her August 29 AdoptTalk blog. Mirah and I were on the same track. I just picked it up and expanded it. There were no hot and heavy emails as some surmised. BJ did not contact me or ask me to write anything. I contacted her– and had to scrounge around for her email address. So leave her alone. The blog is my responsibility.
Mirah wrote something very important that day regarding the language dispute, “Respect needs to be extended to our historical roots, especially in a movement opposed to changing the names of individuals.”
As an adopted person and a historian by training, I deeply resent any attempt to exclude, expel, expunge our fore- mothers, -fathers, -sisters and -brothers and their work from our collective political and social memory. Those who fight for adoption change do not have the privelege of practicing creative forgetfulness–even if it is to “forget” just a word. If it is BJ Lifton and her work or her language that is “forgotten” or excluded now, who is forgotten and excluded next? Jean Paton? Florence Fisher? Lee Campbell? Joe Soll? Helen Hill? Bastard Nation? The AAC? CUB? Origins? You?
History, as Orwell noted, is written by the winners. As people whose history is manipulated, whose identities and relationships are constructed by state intervention and decree, whose paper records are sealed, and whose rights are “balanced” against the rights of everyone else’s and found wanting, the right to self-ownership and self-expression should be paramount. We should honor and maintain our history, which includes our language, as a matter of survival. It is disturbing then, that a group of mothers who were turned into not mothers by a flick of the state’s pen would take on the mantle of the state to manipulate language and naming through exclusion.
At no time did I advocate the exclusive use or for that matter any use of the word “birthmother.” I don’t care what anybody wants to call themselves. Really. What many commentors conveniently skipped over was what I wrote upfront:
This doesn’t mean that language can’t and shouldn’t evolve and reflect contemporary thought. When writing about adoption I like to move around language, using what looks good syntaxicly or how I feel at the moment as my criteria.
The real issue, though, isn’t the word “birthmother” or any other word somebody does or doesn’t like. The real issue is the ability of individuals to self-identify and self-define–to use language with which they are comfortable without being bullied or kicked out of the clubhouse.
Tiresome intra-culture wars have been fought over politically correct naming since the 1960s. These disputes have served little purpose other than therapeutic diversion from cultural-political warfare. The classic dog-eat-dog scenario that debilitates justice movements requires no cost to the oppressor. The state maintains its control while grievants implode over sectarian language and other meaningless pissing issues relevant only to anal retentatives in English Departments. The therapeutic divide has been especially harmful to adoption “reform,” imbued since the Reagan years, with bourgeois individualistic victim-healing consumer “solutions” rather than tough political action based on an informed analysis and critique of the role of the hegemonic state in family life. Instead “reformers” have rut-lined themselves with an emotional reunion-at-any-cost compromise that marginalizes the rights of all while propping up the state’s over-arching control of family life and personal relationships. This does not mean that adoption does not causes real suffering; deep permanent pain. It does, and that should be respected, but “reformers have chosen to “heal” the symptom not root out the cause of the disease.
PEDIACENTRICITY: It’s all about the baby
The US is a pediacentric culture in which children are the worshipful prize that in post-capitalist culture have little value other than symbolic–an unquestioned entitlement unmarred by class. That doesn’t mean that parents don’t love their children. But unlike the past where they held utilitarian value, children today, viewed though through the gauze of sentimental parenthood and the paradigm of “choice,“ even amongst the Maury crowd, are signifiers of parental status, psychological well-being, and ability. That is the subtext of all contemporary adoption discourse. I deserve; therefore I am.
The American family system is designed to support the essentialism of procreative desire, through biology or statute. The public aesthetic is one of the consumerized family. Those who don’t (aren’t interested) or can’t (infertility, marriage status) fall for the scam are considered eccentric, selfish, and ultimately harmful to the health of the state– especially its tax base–and to its theologized superstructure.
The US economy is built on the family value of continual acquisition of material goods and services “for the children.” Hummers, real estate, electric can openers, iPods, life insurance, boutique grocery stores, home computers, “family friendly” restaurants, mega churches, TV, prepaid funeral plans, public breast feeding ordinances, family leave, dumb “child protection” laws like Amber Alert, taxes, jails, medicine, therapy, politicians, and war are all “for the children.” They are sold to us by “cute kids” in print and on television. It’s little wonder that so many people think they need one. Instead of cultivating a life of interests (antique collecting, NASCAR, travel, politics, gardening, platonic and romantic relationships, writing, carpentry, soap operas, bar-hopping, cats, JFK assassination conspiracy theories, church, fishing) they–particularly women–sign on to a lifetime of parenthood without a dot or a crossed “t” of critical thinking beyond the signature.
WORTHINESS: The corporate state v mothers
But parenthood has always been mediated by “worthiness.” Poverty, race, religion, marital status, morals or the lack thereof, status, and values play into who is worthy and who is not, to parent Worthiness varies. One hundred years ago, the white unmarried mother was frequently viewed by reformers as “our fallen sister” misused by a cad. (NOTE: The industry considers men superfelous and even dangerous to the adoption debate). Her redemption came through care of her child (with little chance of ever nailing down a husband) , despite the fact that some mothers had no interest in mothering. Regina Kunzel in her book Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945, reports an incident of rescue home escapees rounded up by police, returned to the home and forced to breastfeed their babies against their will. A generation later, “fallen sisters” had transformed into “social units” and female cads who sexually victimized innocent men. Their redemption came from secret infant surrender and de-sexing through what is today called “secondary virginity” in order to restore her and her family’s virtue and hopefully snag her a husband, despite the fact that some mothers had a great interest in mothering.
But even within the fallen class structure there were the “worthy:” upper middle class, middle class or upwardly mobile working class daughters from “good families,” and correct ethnic and racial backgrounds who deserved sympathy and support. The rest were dangerous flotsam and jetsam progenitors of tainted babies. Depending on the times, their unfortunate children needed to be kept by their mothers in some low-end neighborhood, segregated in baby warehouses away from healthy society, or placed anonymously in proper homes. Unmarried minority mothers, popularly regarded as hypersexual natural deviants, usually were left to their own devices, unless picked up by a middle class African-American female reformers and women’s clubists.
Today overt unworthiness in newborn surrenders is subsumed in the rhetoric of adopta-religio counseling embedded in baybee grab projects such as National Council of Adoption’s Infant Adoption Awareness Training Program and in christianized CPCs (crisis pregnancy centers or as I like to call them, CPICs– compulsory pregnancy indoctrination centers), often staffed by IAATP graduates. Minority newborns, though less expensive, are the new white meat. The new unworthiness, a seamless shotgun marriage of older ideologies to contemporary social concerns (abortion or job security, for instance), preaches that entitlement to one’s own child is selfish and inimical to that child’s “best interest.” Redemption comes from unselfish mother love, enlightened self-interest, a constructed desire to help the unfortunate (baybee-starved paps) and hopefully Bible study and salvation. Unworthiness is never spoken but internalized.
But there is a larger view of worthiness that goes unremarked in baybee adoption circles since apparently the only legitimate adoption worthy of admonition is the intra-class newborn transfer.
Historically, the child welfare system is scattered with the bodies of poor and working class parents whose children were confiscated “for their own good.” (think Charles Brace or Tennessee bitch kitty Georgia Tann) The 1940s-1970s here in Ohio, marked a horrific period of child removal at whim, not of newborns, but of older children (but not too old!) deemed “endangered” yet placeable. This does not mean that all removal was unjustified, but a substantial number of mothers and children were separated for no other reason than agents of the state, backed by a friendly judge, could.
I have personally encountered mothers who lost their children for the crimes of temporary poverty, working outside the home, keeping children in playpens, and fighting with family or neighbors. Vindictive phone callsl to Children’s Services over petty disputes seemed to have been a popular way to even the score. I’m sure they still are. Parents say they were told they had no legal recourse and never saw their children after they were hauled out the door. I have talked to adults who as children were removed from their mothers and never adopted, but whose foster care records are sealed tighter than adoption files. They have no idea why they were removed from their mothers. It’s not their business. Nanny Sam knows best.
This type of blatant and mass systemic abuse of child welfare is not so common today, if for no other reason than child welfare is under-funded, under-staffed and used as a strong arm in the War on Drugs. Incarcerated mothers, thanks to the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, are on the fast track to “surrender” if they have no “acceptable” family or friends to take custody. As “welfare reforms” made by the Clinton and Bush administrations continue to block low income female mobility, we should expect to see more “voluntary” terminations of parental rights. (One of the more attractive carrots is the state promise of open adoption since its cheaper and cleaner than adjudication for neglect or abuse). Particularly dangerous is the Bush administration’s marriage initiatives pushed by rabid pro-adoptionist Asst. Sec. of HHS Wade Horn, that divert TANF funds to drum up marriage amongst the poor. First dibs on the public dole would would be for worthy married parents with unworthy unmarried mothers picking up the scraps, if there are any. Of course, nobody says where all of these older confiscated difficult-to- place-children generated from this mess will go except the warehouse and Thursday’s Child.
At the same time poor women are being penalized as single moms, the definition of “unfit parenting,” has been expanded to include any number of odd characterizations heretofore considered private decisions, excluded from government purview. Private consensual sexual practices between adults, cigarette smoking, junk food, sugar intake, and “peculiar” but harmless religious beliefs, now warrant government inspection , intervention, and punishment, of even the most solid middle class families. Public schools force drug tests, behavior modification drugs, and psychological evaluations on children; men and women are sent off to fight imperialistic wars; abortion is “outlawed” for all but those who can afford it; contraception is the next target. The compromise detainee bill if passed will authorize the president to name any US citizen he chooses an ’enemy combatant” stripped of all Constitutional rights with no redress. The government owns your body unless you can climb into the crawlspace of privilege, an increasingly improbable accomplishment. Adoption is the model of social corporatism.
It is distressing to see posters on the Daily Bastardette ignore the issue of the individual’s relationship with the real enemy, the hegemon state: the master control switch of adoption, choosing instead to attack adopted persons, adopters and activists over esoteric issues that do nothing to promote change. It is especially disturbing to see mother-identified women, bubbling with middle class status-loss resentment, refusing to examine the broader view of parental un/worthiness seemingly preferring an US (good middle class worthy women) over THEM (bad other class women) when, in fact, you are all disenfranchised mothers through direct or indirect state action. Is Charles’ Murray’s “The Coming White Underclass” a study guide for mother-class war?
RE-INVENTION: the American pastime
It seems to me that what has been argued here on the Daily Bastardette is much more than the limited therapeutic effect of naming:” an attempt to construct a definition of mother– a word already with several millennia of accepted yet varied psycho-social-bio meanings inscribed.
What is a mother?
Who is a mother?
Is a gestational carrier a mother?
Is an egg donor a mother?
Is a stepmother a mother?
An adopter a mother?
Am I mother? Are you?
What about women like my natural mother who adopted two children herself? Is she 1/3 a mother?
Are mothers in polygamist families mothers?
Can adopted persons define their mother(s)
Can mothers self-define?
What if definitions collide?
Is adoption loss confined only to newborn surrenders?
Are you reclaiming the patriarchal family space as your own or carving out motherhood as a radical response to patriarchy?
How will your definition(s) change public policy?
Re-invention of the self is an American pastime. Re-invention and adoption are natural allies, but also natural rivals, each ightingn for the authentic self. In adoption, we are expunged from our own histories and memories. Self-naming and self-identification can send a strong political message when strategically used and placed, but we should accept each other’s language and never dictate those identities to others. If we do, we’re using the enemy’s weapons against each other.